Book Review: A Northern Light

A Northern Light
Narrated By: Hope Davis
Published By: Random House Audio
Publication Date: March 2003
Audio Length: 8 hours, 49 minutes
Buy it at Amazon or IndieBound
Audience: Young Adult - Historical Fiction

On the Writing & Story:

I am a big fan of historical fiction - particularly historical fiction told through female perspectives. Sadly, women's stories weren't always heard throughout history so I enjoy seeing events told through the voices that were kept quiet at the time. Mattie Gokey's story is no exception to plight of other women in the early 1900's. In 1906, like most other girls her age, Mattie was expected to do whatever her father asked of her and marry a man who could take care of her. She was not supposed to have dreams of her own or dare speak of leaving her life behind for the glamour of New York City. Mattie wants to go to college in the big city and leave behind the rural life and isolation she has always known in the Adirondack Mountains in northern New York state. However, how can she even think about leaving when her family needs her?

A Northern Light is written with beautiful prose and flawless research. Jennifer Donnelly writes the story in a shifting narrative bouncing back and forth between Mattie's present as an employee at a hotel and her past as the daughter of a widower farmer who must help keep the farm and family running. Mattie knows she's not cut out to spend her life on a farm, but she finds herself without many options due to monetary circumstances. The family becomes so desperate for money that her father allows her to seek employment at a lakeside hotel in spite of his opposition to the idea. While at the Glennmore, Mattie meets a beautiful woman who carries sorrow around her shoulders like a shawl. When the young woman ends up dead, Mattie is drawn into a story of secrets and must decide how to best help the dead rest.

Furthermore, I really enjoyed the look at race relations in this time period. Weaver, one of Mattie's best friends, is one of the few African Americans in this area. The way he is treated by the other characters in this book speaks accurately on treatment of minorities during this era. I can't even imagine living life the way Weaver and his mother do - the constant fear of the actions of others and dealing with the fact that people saw you as less because of the color of your skin. The incident with the trappers also broke my heart. So many people think things like that only happened in the South, but alas racism is not restricted by geographic  borders.

I was slightly disappointed that the book focused more on Mattie than on the Grace Brown murder aspects. I picked this one up on that element alone and while it did play a significant role in the plot and in Mattie's decisions, I felt like it was more of an after thought. Since Grace Brown's story is based in fact, I have been inspired to learn more about her death and the following trial. This book is so detailed and layered; it was overwhelming at times. I was, however, impressed with Donnelly's skill. I have heard wonderful things about her historical fiction works and this one didn't disappoint in spite of some of the more frustrating elements. I also couldn't give this a book a three because of the amount of talent Donnelly has as a writer. The book wasn't my favorite historical fiction read, but it has so much merit as a literary work.

On the Audio:

There were many segments of the book that were hard for me to get through in this format. I would find myself getting bored and zoning out only to find out that I had missed something integral. My finger became well acquainted with the rewind button during this one. Hope Davis has a pleasant voice, but it often lulled me into a state of submission where I lacked the ability to be an active participant in the reading. Due to the amount of detail in this one, I would suggest skipping the audio version for a more traditional format. 

One Last Gripe: Royal annoyed me - I just wanted him to go away anytime he came on the scene

My Favorite Thing About This Book: I loved Mattie's obsession with words and her word battles with Weaver

First Sentence: My youngest sister, Beth, who is five, will surely grow up to be a riverman - standing upstream on the dam, calling out warnings to the men below that the logs are coming down.

Favorite Character: Mattie

Least Favorite Character: Table Six

An astonishing and heartbreaking story of a young girl's coming of age and the murder that rocked turn of the century America.
It is 1906 and Mattie Gokey is trying to learn how to stand up like a man, even though she's a sixteen-year-old-girl. At her summer job on Big Moose Lake she might earn money enough to make something of her life. To marry a handsome but dull boy who wants her. To save her father's brokeback farm. Or to buy a train ticket to New York City and college and a life she can barely allow herself to imagine.
But all her plans are cast into a cold light when the drowned body of Grace Brown turns up -- a young woman who gave Mattie a packet of love letters, letters that convince Mattie that the drowning was no accident.
Inspired by the sensational Chester Gillette murder case that was also the basis for Theodore Dreiser's An American Tragedy and the film A Place in the Sun, this novel will take its place beside To Kill a Mockingbird, Little Women, and other classics that hark back to times of lost innocence.


  1. This book has been languishing on my shelf for a while. I picked it up mainly for the Grace Brown murder aspect so it is a little disappointing that it wasn't a larger part of the story, but it still sounds like it would be great to read. Thanks for the review!

    1. I was disappointed that the novel didn't focus more on Grace's story, but it is still an excellent piece of historical fiction.


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